William Henry Ireland – 1796

By | November 12, 2016

“When this solemn mockery is o’er”


William Henry Ireland


Vortigern the Shakeperean play that never was, had its premiere (and indeed only performance) on 2 April 1796 at the Drury Lane Theatre, London. It was the work of forger William Henry Ireland, the son of bookseller, Samuel Ireland. Father and son visited Stratford the home of Samuel’s idol, William Shakespeare, in 1793. There were rumours that William Henry may not have been Samuel’s progeny and certainly the son believed that the father loved the bard more than him.

William came up with a plan to gain his father’s attention and on 2 December 1794 he told Samuel that he had been given Shakespeareana by a man he would identify only as “Mr H”. Samuel was intrigued and overjoyed especially when William Henry produced more of ‘Shakespeare’s’ private papers, including apparently original transcripts of parts of King Lear and Hamlet. The items were put on display and some of the literary establishment, including Poet Laureate, Henry Pye, flocked to see them. James Boswell said, “I now kiss the invaluable relics of our bard to thank God that I have lived to see them.”

Doubts began to arise as to the veracity of the items and by January 1796 the media began to trash Ireland’s name and reputation. The previous year he had “discovered” a previously unseen five-act Shakespeare play. The play opened at the Drury Lane Theatre before 2,500 people and Acts I and II went well enough but after that the play began to unravel. In Act IV the actor Phillimore died too far upstage and became trapped under the safety curtain; a drunk tried to drag the unfortunate thespian off the stage.

It was in Act V when the lead actor John Kemble spoke the line “And when this solemn mockery is o’er” that the audience knew for sure what the doubters had believed. The house erupted and it took ten minutes for quiet at which time Kemble repeated the line. This was unprofessional and the theatre owner, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, disassociated himself from Kemble’s performance.


Drury Lane Theatre, London, England


Saturday 2 April 1796


William Henry confessed that all of the Shakespeareana was forged but Samuel refused to believe him and the two men never spoke again. Samuel died in July 1800. William Henry Ireland passed away almost 35 years later at Sussex Place, St George’s-in-the-Fields, London, on17 April 1835.


The bill matter for Vortigern identified the author as “W.H. Ireland” and not Shakespeare and was part of a double bill with a play called The Grandmother, a farce about an art scholar who was fooled by the resemblance between a girl and her ancestor.

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